Weight Watchers Helps Build Healthy Economy

Much like the healthy eating habits she preaches, Florine Mark’s business is a balance of preparation, organization and clever public relations.

While it makes sense to maintain a reasonable weight, most people just don’t want to do the work that comes with a fit lifestyle. That’s where Weight Watchers comes in the program teaches its members how to eat well over a lifetime. Through its simple approach, Mark’s franchise has helped millions of people do something they never thought they wanted to do.

In theory, it’s a business that never sees a slowdown. And things have been busier than ever for Mark, who serves not only as CEO but as the very public face of Weight Watchers here. Besides the obvious need for people to be in good physical shape, the rising costs of health care due to obesity-related diseases as well as the demand for new workplace and public-policy initiatives related to weight loss continue to gain national attention.

Knowing how to lose unwanted pounds and keep them off is a skill set in high demand. And that is why Mark is working nonstop these days, moving between her Farmington Hills offices, the state capital, her Weight Watchers meeting rooms across Michigan and her charitable works. The spotlight on wellness offers significant potential for the right company, and Mark is in position to be the spokeswoman to change the way people look at and consume food.

If you look at pure numbers, Mark is running a remarkable business. Last year, her Weight Watchers franchise helped its 55,000 members lose a collective 5.27 million pounds. The franchise, which serves the state and parts of Canada, has more than 700 weekly meetings for its membership, who must attend regularly to hear information about diet, nutrition and positive reinforcement.

Bringing it to work
Mark’s longtime At Work program is gaining new fans lately as well. The program, which brings the venerable Weight Watchers system to the workplace, is in the midst of a renaissance, gaining new traction among employers who are looking to boost employee morale, reduce absenteeism and cut their health care costs.

To date, more than 300 Michigan offices provide the at-work Weight Watchers programs, and around 60 are ready to go live this fall, said Laurie Humphrey, media relations specialist for The WW Group Inc. The key difference in these new partnerships is that about 40 percent of the participating businesses are subsidizing some or all of the cost for their employees, Humphrey said, putting their money where their mouth is in a real and lasting way.

Our At-Work programs are the most exciting thing we’re doing today, Mark said. We come right to the workplace and teaching employees how to eat healthier and lose weight. We lower employers’ health care costs and get their employees feeling great. And when you feel better about yourself, you do a better job.

What’s not to love about that? It’s a sentiment that businesses are adopting in droves. While some health-related moves result in poor public relations announce you no longer hire smokers, and see how workers and the media react bringing in health-promotion programs tends to draw praise and good press.

Sitting still, however, is no longer an option for most. These days, companies are watching an increasing percentage of their profits going toward medical costs. That is why an estimated 81 percent of U.S. businesses with 50 or more employees have some sort of health-related program in place. Human-resource representatives generally agree that the outcome of these programs is positive they not only increase loyalty, but they also reduce the use of health care benefits, worker’s compensation and disability-management costs.

Balance that with all of the good things about the American lifestyle access to food, large blocks of leisure time, positive discretionary income and it’s easy to see why the nation has a weight problem. Almost 70 percent of U.S. adults can be classified as overweight, according to the National Institute of Health. Obesity can raise the likelihood of many adverse health conditions including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain kinds of cancer.

A day at the zoo on Weight Watchers Group: Weight Watchers members, their families and friends were invited to a closed zoo event in 1993 featuring kids’ activities, games and more. Canned goods were collected in lieu of admission fees. Courtesy Weight Watchers

Mark also points to studies that show that poor diet ranks high in terms of an individual’s declining health and eventual death. According to data released by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, of the 10 leading causes for health decline in the U.S., poor diet (defined as an eating pattern high in sodium and low in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and seafood) was responsible for 678,288 deaths in 2010, surpassing the total accumulation of deaths caused from smoking, drug use and alcohol. It’s a statistic Mark finds shocking and one that she frequently quotes as the motivation behind her life’s work.

The medical field is in agreement: The excess pounds have to go. In July, the American Medical Association labeled obesity as a disease. Groups like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force have set guidelines for primary-care physicians, directing them to screen for obesity and to have these patients seek interventions or behavior therapy like a sustained weight-loss program. The Affordable Care Act, which is expected to become effective in January 2014, lists weight management and smoking cessation programs as priority interests.

As the Affordable Care Act goes into place, companies such as Weight Watchers stand to benefit greatly from the interest in weight-loss therapies. Chances are federal and local governments will begin to earmark funding for weight management programs. Because of its 50 years in business, Weight Watchers has the brand recognition and public trust needed to spur enrollment. Further, Weight Watchers has the power in numbers and marketing savvy to make it happen.

In 2012, Harris Interactive’s Equitrend study showed that when Americans make commitments to get healthy and look for a formal weight management program, Weight Watchers, the Weight Loss Plan Brand of the Year, is the most likely candidate, according to the report.

Weight Watchers excels in emotionally connecting to consumers, the report stated, so whether consumers need to lose a few pounds to boost selfimage or keep a commitment to maintain a healthier lifestyle, they think of Weight Watchers.

Science backs up that brand loyalty. Baylor College of Medicine, along with Weight Watchers, helped conduct a study that showed that overweight and obese adults following a community-based weight loss intervention, namely Weight Watchers, lost significantly more weight than those who tried to lose weight on their own (10.1 lbs. vs. 1.3 lbs. at six months). Those in the Weight Watchers group were provided with three access routes group meetings, mobile applications, and online tools and further analysis found those who used all three access routes together lost the most weight.

That study was published in October in The American Journal of Medicine, giving Weight Watchers and its significant organization the unrivaled status as weight-loss champions. And Mark is the perfect example of how the program has worked for its members, day in and day out, for the past half a century.

Inspired by weight loss

As Mark tells it, her weight-loss story really started in 1966 when she ended up in the hospital after what doctors believed to be an allergic reaction to weight-loss pills given to her by a diet doctor. This came after dozens of failed attempts to lose the 50 pounds she had gained after having five children. Mark’s family told her: Find a new doctor. Simultaneously, her husband gave her bad news with his business in a downturn, she’d need to find a job to supplement the family’s income.

Walking for a cause in 1981: Florine’s sister, Sandy, had polio and for many years, the family and Weight Watcher members would walk in local March of Dimes walks to raise money for research. Florine and the group were generating a lot of money for the charity, at one point they were one of the top fund-raising groups in the state, averaging about $250,000 annually. Courtesy Weight Watchers

Mark was at a grocery store when she saw the first headline about Weight Watchers. That night, as she ate her half-pint of vanilla ice cream (because it was the least fattening, naturally, she jokes), Mark read about this new weight-loss method but it was conducting meetings only in the New York area at the time. She decided to give it a try, and used the last of her family’s savings to go to the Big Apple. She attended 15 classes in five days, learning everything about the system as she did.

Jean Nidetch, the woman who founded Weight Watchers in 1963, helped Mark to lose weight by participating in meetings on a monthly basis rather than weekly. In four months, Mark had lost 40 pounds. It would take another year to lose the remaining 10, and Mark never forgot that challenge as her business idea to bring Weight Watchers to Michigan took root.

Looking around her, Mark realized her whole family needed to lose weight. She set personal goals for herself and her mom, dad, sisters, aunts and more. In July 1966, Mark created the first Weight Watchers franchise in Michigan. Her first meeting was held in a school auditorium. She hired a staff quickly, realizing her skills were in marketing the business. But every hire had to have sat through one of her classes, lost weight and struggled just like she and her members have to keep the pounds off.

Her first Weight Watchers class had 36 people, mostly family. The next week, it had 100. The week after that, some 200 people came back.

I didn’t have any training to work with; I came back from New York with just a piece of paper with this diet on it. So I spoke from the heart. I told them about me. I told them how it changed my life, Mark said. And they lost weight. People told me that I had changed their life. They felt successful. And I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Knowing what works for her as a business leader and what doesn’t is one of the reasons Mark says her franchise has been so successful. She’s an entrepreneur at heart, a risk taker, visionary, delegator. She leaves issues like real estate, legal and other areas to her COO and other employees. At one time, she owned franchises in 14 states and three countries. She sold much of her empire back to Weight Watches years ago, focusing now on Michigan and her small part of Canada. The resulting free time channeled right back into her policy work she serves on a multitude of committees, including Gov. Rick Snyder’s Council on Physical Fitness and her charity work.

I knew right away that I needed a COO. We women, we try to do it all ourselves. I’m not a superwoman, and I didn’t want to be, Mark said. I’m good at public relations, selling, marketing, training, gathering people, working with staff. … I knew I’d need mentors, and I got them from day one. They were men because there weren’t many women around at that time. They were my accountant and my attorney, both from big firms. I told them I’d be their best female client, put them on my board of directors and met with them monthly.

Star of weight loss; promoter of Detroit
It’s not all work and no fun. On the other side, there is the Mark who hosts extravagant yet health-conscious luncheons for the likes of famed television newscaster Deborah Norville at her home with friends, laughing over the struggle to find the right pair of Spanx shapewear. Norville, a recent award recipient at Mark’s ReMARKable Women fundraising event in October, called Mark a rock star of blending her enthusiasm for the community and her business savvy to give back.

Florine Mark’s family is among her most important assets. To that end, her Farmington Hills office is decorated with her grandchildren’s pictures and drawings, many of which highlight her passion for red, “I Love Lucy” and community giving. Photo Rosh Sillars

Another recipient, television executive Judy Girard (who founded channels such as Food Network and HGTV), described Mark this way: She is just amazing. Someone as entrepreneurial as she is could have a very hard edge. But she has this balance in her personality that is just amazing.

Mark’s response? Attitude is the whole thing, she said. That is how she is able to get up most mornings at 6 a.m., climb on the elliptical machine at the gym and watch her beloved I Love Lucy episodes. It’s how she ends the day with a bowl full of fruit or vegetables instead of her once necessary ice cream. It’s how she lost 50 pounds and kept it off for 35 years.

Mark also sees her role as a female business mentor and Detroit promoter as a very needed one. She works closely with other women business owners, offering meetings and advice as she can. Mark also became the first fresh-foods ambassador for Eastern Market this summer, hoping to show all of Michigan the power of healthy eating and of buying locally.

I was born in Detroit. I remember going downtown to Hudson’s with my mother as a child, and it was wonderful, Mark said. The downtown is now fabulous again. I believe in Detroit. I believe in Michigan. We have the greatest state in the whole union, and there are a lot of people who are coming downtown. We have casinos, stadiums, zoos. We have one of the most fabulous riverwalks you’ve ever seen. We have everything anyone could ever want.

But she wasn’t always this confident. Mark admits that between the loss of two husbands, a lifetime of working and the challenges of raising a large family were difficult. One of biggest priorities is spending time with her family, and says that without them I wouldn’t be anything.

When I was a size 20, I didn’t think anyone would hire me. I was smart. I was nice. I was a good mother. But all I saw was that I was so overweight. I didn’t like myself, so how could anyone else like me? Mark recalled. Then I saw that Weight Watchers headline in ‘Women’s Day.’ … And it worked for me. I just couldn’t believe it. I came back full of self-respect.

What’s Cooking with Florine Mark: In recognition of Weight Watcher Group’s 25th anniversary, Florine offered a series of cooking demonstrations in 1994 at the Winchester Mall in Rochester. Courtesy Weight Watchers

I wanted to be on TV, write, be on the radio, be a movie star, dance on Broadway, Mark laughed. It wasn’t just about looking nice. You have this new-found inner respect, which is so important.

That comes from meeting in person not just through a computer screen or smartphone app. While having the right technology is important, Mark acknowledges, having that one-on-one time with another person is an important ingredient in Weight Watchers’ unique formula. Being unique also is key that is why her franchise has Isabella Nicoletti, a classically trained chef, to teach members new, healthy recipes. The Mark franchise also has its own newspapers, sends out birthday cards and more so members and employees feel special.

I could not have lost 50 pounds sitting in front of a computer. When you’re in that classroom, you know the leader has had weight problem she knows what it’s like to have that donut call out to you! It’s this group participation, it’s this getting together, this rapport you get that you cannot get just from a computer or an app, Mark said.

What we’re doing it helping you change your eating habits little by little. You’re not even aware that you’re doing it. Instead of going for that 4 p.m. Snickers bar, you’ll find yourself reaching for that bag of veggies you packed yourself that morning, Mark said. If you stay with us, you will lose weight. Even if you eat 10 bags of potato chips in one week, that’s when you need us the most. And when you’ve had a good week, that’s when all of the people in the class need you the most.

Having people come into the workplace to conduct these meetings is one reason the At Work program has been a success. From the start, employers embraced the idea, Mark said. One of her first companies to sign on was Ford Motor Co., which brought the Weight Watchers meetings right to their line workers. It worked so well, in fact, that the relationship between the automaker and Mark’s company has gone for more than a decade.

Companies of every size participate, Mark said, from hospitals to lawyer’s offices to manufacturing plants. Statistics kept by companies and municipalities using the program show that Weight Watchers works, and the group’s related health care costs drop as a result. For example, Health Alliance Plan since 2007 has offered Weight Watchers as a benefit to its more than 52,000 members. They have lost a combined 402,555 pounds over the past six years.

At the city of Ferndale, some 30 of its workers started using the At Work program about a year ago. Since then, they have lost more than 1,000 pounds and saved an estimated $131,000 in health care costs, the company reported. The city is now completely covering the costs for these workers and hopefully more as time goes on.

Listening to our customers is more important to Weight Watchers than any other company I’ve known or worked for, Mark said. We find out what our members want and adjust our programs to their needs.

And any time they’re feeling lonely, depressed or unmotivated, all they have to do is look at the back of their Weight Watchers classroom. Chances are, Mark will be there. She still attends meetings regularly, keeping up her own weight-loss goal.

I’m no different than anybody else. People like me, we eat to relieve anxiety. But instead of eating a half-gallon of ice cream, I’ll go for the Cool Whip on fruit. It’s just as good. It doesn’t make any difference, Mark said. I realize it’s not what I’m putting in my mouth; it’s the fact that I’m putting something in my mouth. After you take that first bite, you don’t even taste it any more.

I try to take one day at a time. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I try to plan for it, but I always have today, Mark said.